Statement for Georgetown University panel | Rodrigo Toscano

The following statement / discussion-enabler, was written for a Symposium, "Dissenting Practices" (February 20-22, 2003) at Georgetown University.

(The following is an excerpt from the general invitation)

"Whatever the impulses animating the making of poetry, one assumption that holds good is that the poem has some describable relation-of critique, indifference, support, reflection, determination-to the society in which the writer lives….so then, in the spirit of Brecht, this symposium will seek to prompt opinion & reflection from poets on the sociality of art…thinking America broadly as the site of imperium and fluctuation-fissures-in the meaning of "our": poetry in our America."

(And an excerpt of the prompt from the "Border Zones in These States" panel)

"There are borders within the United States-between languages, races, neighborhoods, categories in the census…a culture unsettled, impure, double-crossed…by flows in and out of bordered spaces-people with their memories and speech-that fit in, that do not fit in. The complex situation of border zones-how to talk about poetry from such spaces, or poetry as such spaces made legible?"

(Many thanks to Mark McMorris, symposium organizer)


A Border Round in Six Parts

1. Two attempts at crossing the "extra-literary" and "intra-literary" social divide (both ways, without the customary bribery posing as mutual-aid).

The working-poet side of me, that is, the side that'll have to inevitably return to specifying a constitutive social perspective, one that is evidenced through numerous lexical, syntactical and structural values in the poem-that side, will have to make a multitude of discriminations that lead to concrete choices-that side: would like to speak…like this:

"Every line (or sentence) of poetry having more than one word in it, presents a "border" problematic. The crossing, for example, from the "I" (subject) to a specific (socially-accented) verb, is at once a mutual ideological co-determination, as it is a perilous and unpredictable grazing up against, or perhaps it is an inspection-one of the other. And then, the on-towards the (quote) "resolving" object (direct social, or indirect social)-further complicates matters.

A persistent question: what lies on either side-of a (singular) word. And perhaps, exaggerated-sounding to some, I often ask, what "borders" reside within a single word. And even deeper on that path, my working-poet compeers spurn me on to more acute observations-for example, Myung Mi Kim (who is here present among us) who's often asked, what might resonate inside a single syllable…across oceans, decades, geo-regional cultures…in that she's figured the very syllable of a word as being a significant, as well as signifying border problematic.

Again, this is the working-poet side of me, needing to pose it like this: this on-towards the object (direct social, or indirect) of this grammatical sentence (of power, or deliverance from power) <quote> 'resolved' <quote> 'suspended'<quote> 'transformed'"

And conversely, or rather, in addition to the working-poet side of me, is the social-actor, which seems to want to say, "No-nuh uh"…that's too limiting, politically, to talk about textual crossings and the like. My having reservations about these alleged initiations, and summoning into beings of, The Audience, as through determinative selections made in the composition of a text. Hasn't The Audience, instead, come of its own accord (through the winding paths of history) and why would it need to be brought into "play" or "methodologically-textually jiggled into being"…the dynamization of the audience-unit (me)-has already happened…

And yet, admittedly [the social-actor continuing] I have my own borders to contend with, as evidenced by the continuous non-ending discussion of the very existence of this "social side." For example: most left critical journals, like the New Left Review, The Monthly Review, and the like, will not submit easily (if at all) to talking about poetry's inner workings, even if those poetries claim to be revealing of manifest "outer social" dynamics. And, it's true, as you say, working-poet (that is, I concur) that most poetry journals around the country would not (and do not) put up with the ideological analytical mode such as I prefer to work in.

Social Actor, continues…

"Wouldn't the cumulative lexicon of someone's poetry-or even the cumulative lexicon of an entire scene's poetry register, more or less, its target audiences? Similarly, might not a socio-linguistic survey of poetry audiences reveal what particular coding is being drafted upon what population's foreheads. We used to say, in the County Mental Health Department in San Francisco…"this population, that other population…a new population is bleeding onto that other population"

"Target audiences?" exclaims the working-poet. "Look, at the very moment you release your volitional bows, the hundred arrows (signs) that you let fly immediately stick in three hundred unforeseen targets. I mean the texture or lived-stratification of modern social life-well, it's smarts in'it? That is, it doesn't easily allow so linear a concept as "target audience" to live, in such a purified state. Aren't you more likely to be describing the contours or charged boundaries between one crowd and the other; as you yourself said, "a population…bleeding onto another one"

"Okay, okay," then says The Social-Actor. "But let's not get too excited by these pomographies…there is a distillation at the end of the day…an indecorous cattle-call even…by that ranch-hand turned rancher…Life at the big "H": History-Marx, 'All history is class-history.' And our poetries funnel into that crucible"

To which the two border-crossers, for the moment, agree to continue working out their contradictions later; and what's more, through the paradoxical practice of poetry.

"Angels and Bastards interchangeably" (Zukovsky)

2. The poet's events director speaks.

"Is there such a thing as an extra-literary audience (in this society)? Some might say, "Yes, my parents are such an audience, my neighbors, my co-workers, my (as yet, unlearned) students…"

But wouldn't "extra-literary" in this society mean that the population in question, for example, hasn't watched TV-at all (been formed by it) and the same with movies. On most TV sets these days, you can even enable the settings to see the transcripts.

Juliana Spahr (who is present with us here also) seems to have taken this perspective to heart (or gut) in her book, Response. In that book, she treated talk shows, their literary strategies, as if they were "for real" (live) literary methodologies. And so, I'm still asking, what extra-literary audience that we're sometimes accused of ignoring, speaking down to, can we really point to in this society (literacy problems notwithstanding).

And yet, at the same time, can we, as literaryists count on such as thing as an intra-literary audience? Paradoxically, I'd answer no. People move in the world of social relations, and spaces-in regions that are both pre- and post-linguistically patrolled; that is, the body, perhaps might still be the ultimate border detection device. (Who is more likely (racially) to be the target of surveillance at a Mall, who is judged on body shape or size for a job, for example.)

So, what we can count on is a Border Problematic when it comes to language…and maybe that's a premise by which we can begin this tour.

Audience as border enforcer, Audience as border crosser, Writer as border enforcer, Writer as Border crosser…

3. Notes Toward A Dissenting Practical Poetics.

Who, present in this room, would disagree that we are in the midst of (and need to respond to) a deep social crisis stemming not only from a lack of relevant (democratically arrived at) information, but also a crises as to how to act on that world-at-large-culturally, that is, even when we are privy to vital evidence of the social through alternate sources.

A crisis, in large part, stemming from corporate domination of all facets of life, a hegemony tending towards a generalized undemocratic treatment of most issues, but especially ones that press hard on life-structures (work, housing, medicine, education, etc.).

A hegemony that's actively colluding with Capital's violence-military wars, poverty-engineering wars, and (so intense this) the war against the social emancipatory imagination.

And yet, a survey of Poetry (journals, books, internet postings, reading events) might demonstrate that Poetry (as an aggregate) is already ranging widely over all sorts of meaning-making constructs that, in multifarious ways, are mediating life-structures (however minoritarian poetry may be as a cultural practice).

Some people might ask, why (while at the ranch) circumscribe already-active heterogeneous poetic movements with an over-arching social perspective?

A preliminary answer might be that, when regarding counter-hegemonic practices, an over-arching perspective is already afoot. And so, what is it? Where is it coming from? What does it intend to do?

4. Minoritarian practices: The way "I" sees it:

Capital-in the long sweep-brings into being Uneven Development. Ergo: this Uneven Cultural Terrain that we're acting in as well as on. Ergo: the need for Combined Struggle.

The unevenly constructed subject might ask, "What does 'combined' refer to?"

Well, first off, not to a Manichean tussle "Global vs. Local," "Race vs. Class," "Gender vs. Race," "Academic vs. Non-Academic," "('Vulgar') Formalism vs. ('Vulgar') Realism" but instead, "combined (struggle)" understood as a sustained counter-hegemonic perspective that allows for the engagement of different levels of negative receptivity, the healthy number and degree of negativities that any audience brings with it…each person with his or her chest full of this-vs.-that's.

This perspective requires an active engagement of historical unevenness, an intention to mediate it and translate between, so as to have a larger (historical) sweep become palpable-more enticing-even sensual, as regards the conjured-up life-structures and the cultural practices that surround them.

Implicit to such a practice is the awareness that one is already adapting to, and challenging, and transforming, various aspects of inter-related (resistive) poetries. The task is then how to avoid enforcing Uneven Development by exacerbating its Uneven Cultural Terrain, treating it as "natural" or "unavoidable." The question is how to work consciously from it-as through it-and yet not "beyond" it, but at the same time, decidedly aiming for that.

5. Interactive Social Emancipatory Imaginations At Work (Border Busters, The Sequel)

We want, or need-which?

To be…

Both a check and catalyst to The Resistive Movements-their inanities, bluster, triumphs, defeatism, vision, myopia….want, or need, to tease out the contradictions in a fluid and dynamic way.

All "poetic" phenomenon is to be consciously attended to, and understood as a concrete productive problematic: "where-now," "how-now" (given what we've just heard, say, at a reading). Being inter-dramatic about it, whether it is expressed as mellifluously-lyrical, declaratively-sentency, phrasally-torquey-whatever.

Who reads a poem-listens to someone read a set of em-and doesn't know it necessarily re-positions them in a complex or even simple way…is a walking-breathing-living historic mis-stake. Though even these mis-stakes-oodles of em'-if apprehended as such might still garner a tentative sense of futurity.

In short, we, as self-conscious practitioners, openly talk about how to craft a practice-on-the-spot, alongside social movements in the process of being crafted (on the spot). Spot, in motion.

An immediate concern is what to amplify, synthesize, pair away, graft, truncate, etc

And if there is an imbedded "credo"-at all, to that buzz word, "combined"-it is this: what might or can be the initial (or initializing) disposition towards an audience? Understood as this time around ("this reading right here"), or next time around ("gotta…just gotta re-set this interfacing").

6. What we brink-to-mean…

Are we brinking it best through poetry?

A persistent question.